Portret van Ben Kuiken
Portret van Ben Kuiken

The study of sense-making: how do we regain our own 'sense'?

In our society, we are constantly tempted to buy things. To make money, be useful and consume. ‘Resist and look for 'sense' other than that of capitalism,’ says outdoor external PhD candidate Ben Kuiken. For his dissertation at the Nijmegen School of Management, he made a critical philosophical review of the concept of sense-making.

‘What do you see in this?’ asks Kuiken. He points to a wooden rectangular top standing on four iron legs. ‘A desk, a table, a work of art?’ It is the introduction to organisational philosopher and external PhD candidate Ben Kuiken's research topic: sense-making, or the meaning we give to things. On 8 March, he will defend his thesis 'Making sense of sense-making' at Radboud University. Kuiken: ‘What I found is that our sense-making is never neutral, but says something about the value we attach to things. And unfortunately, in recent decades that sense-making has been strongly dominated by the capitalist system. How can we make as much money as possible? Be of use? Collect ‘likes’ on social media? While there is also a lot of value in things that you can't do anything with, that have no practical use. So let's try to resist the 'sense of the market', as I call it, and make our own sense again.’ Because, Kuiken says, while our current way of sense-making is valuable and useful, it becomes problematic if we think it is true.

Sense-making is both valuable and problematic, you say. What do you mean by that? 

‘Sense-making is about giving meaning to reality, to what happens. And around that meaning we organise ourselves. Why? So that we can work together and make agreements with each other about how the world works. In that 'organising', we reduce the plurality of reality, as American social psychologist Karl Weick says. In organisations, this is done with functions, for example. By saying 'You are the manager' or 'You are just an ordinary employee', we are reducing an entire person to one aspect of their identity. This is convenient because it allows us to deal with it, to fill spreadsheets, and to make a job description out of it. But we simultaneously sell people and things short. People and things are not just one thing, and besides, they are constantly changing. Only we find that very difficult because we want to make things graspable and fixed.'

Portret Ben Kuiken

You say: we live in a society where capitalism has hijacked meaning. How?

Because we are constantly tempted to go along in 'the sense of the market'. We are bombarded by advertisements, see the neighbor buying a new car, and want the same. Or, we think we need that sun holiday to recover. But we also have other desires, other 'senses', both conscious and unconscious. Like the desire to feel connected, to be part of something bigger. These are never gone but are dominated by those desires for consumption. It is very difficult to resist that because those forces are so strong. So these forces are constantly fighting each other, says philosopher Michel Foucault. The point I am making in my dissertation is: this 'sense' or force of the capitalist system has come to dominate the other senses. As a result, we see everything in terms of money and utility. While there is so much more 'sense' to be made.’

How can we regain our sense? 

'Go make, get, play and give meaning. And ask yourself: what is the 'meaning', the value for me? Instead of accepting everything that is poured over you. You can't quite escape the capitalist system we are in, and you don't have to. As long as you are aware that you are also being manipulated. And then always ask the question: to whom is this of value now? And why? The trick is to find your own way in that.'

On Friday 8 March, Ben Kuiken will defend his thesis 'Making sense of sense-making' in the Auditorium of Radboud University Nijmegen. 

Text: Annette Zonnenberg